Why Your Casual Friends May Be Just As Important As Your Closest Friends

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In late 2020, six months into the pandemic, there were a lot of things I was missing. I felt nostalgic for my commute to the office, watching strangers and listening to podcasts on the train. I longed for meals that weren’t cooked by me or my partner, or left in stapled paper bags on my doorstep. On my most emotionally tortured days, I even missed going to the gym. 
Of course, I also missed my family. And I desperately wanted to squeeze the shoulders of my closest friends and hear about their day in person, preferably over a margarita in a crowded bar. But there was another, very different kind of social void I found myself circling repeatedly: one left open by my casual friends
A 2014 study found that weak ties, like those we have with casual friends, improve both our social and emotional wellbeing. The research found that the more we interact with people on a daily basis, even when these people aren’t close — or even good — friends, the happier we are. 
It might be the friend you added to your Instagram Close Friends, not because you’re actually close, but just because you like their vibe. It could be the colleague you always gravitate towards at office drinks, even though you don’t interact day to day. It could be the friend of a friend who you run into twice a year at a party and always, somehow, end up spending a significant amount of the night dancing alongside.
If you put friendship under a microscope — as I have done for the last two years, while working on my book, Just Friends — it’s not just the massive influence these relationships have on our lives that feels so astonishing. It’s also the various forms each of these significant relationships can take, and the way that even the smallest connections can shape our lives.
My pandemic discovery about the role my casual friends played in my social life helped me reassess the way we think — and talk — about both loneliness and making new friends. Often, when we’re feeling isolated or alone, we assume it’s only the comfort of close friendship that can improve our mood and help us feel reconnected to the world. But while best friends will always make a meaningful contribution to our happiness, the impact of our acquaintances shouldn’t be overlooked
On the days I feel most fulfilled, I often realise it was thanks to a number of sweeping, seemingly insignificant conversations I’ve had with people. Small talk with a coworker in line to get a coffee, a back-and-forth DM exchange with a distant friend about a TV show we’ve realised we’re both watching, running into a friend of a friend while out to dinner with my partner — it’s these small interactions that always make me feel like I belong, both in my own head and in the lives of others. 
When we’re feeling lonely (as we all do sometimes) it can feel easy to blame these feelings on a lack of big, all-consuming friendships. After all, logic could tell us that if we had more close friends who would drop everything for us, we’d never feel alone or left out. But is that really true? If we actually boil down moments of loneliness, I’ve often found that a casual friend could easily fill most gaps. 
A casual friend can be there for a Saturday morning walk, an after-work drink, a movie, or a month-long text conversation about a particularly chaotic celebrity breakup. You don’t need to have been friends with someone for years — or intend on being friends with someone for years — for any of these social activities, which can all make us feel less alone. 
A friend who you’ve only known for six months may not be the person you call first if someone in your family is unwell or you need to debrief after an argument with your partner. But these friends can be who you make plans to visit galleries, try new restaurants, and stay out late dancing with — they can make you feel less alone. Eventually, some of these friendships may evolve to have the same closeness as some of your oldest friends, but others may happily stay in suspended animation, waiting for the next time you have a plus-one to an event that looks like it might be fun.
When we talk about the difficulty of making new friends, we often overlook our newest casual friendships. The hesitation to label certain kinds of friendships — those that may seem fleeting or relatively inconsequential to our lives — isn’t just robbing us of the opportunity to see a friendship grow into something more substantial, it’s also shielding us from the reality that actually, yes, we have been welcoming new people into our world, and they’ve probably been making it a little brighter.
And the joy of casual friendship can go both ways. A 2020 report from Settlement Services International spoke to 334 refugees with permanent residency in Australia, and found that most of these people reported high levels of trust in their neighbours, despite language barriers. Rather than bonding over complaints about bin night or suburb gossip, these small friendships were built out of waves, smiles, and quick hellos in passing. Just as casual friends have the ability to impact our own feelings of loneliness, the way we approach and welcome these connections can have a huge difference in the lives of others too. 
When I think of all the people in my life I could call a friend, it’s almost overwhelming how far and wide the definition can stretch. Reframing our idea of what it means to make a friend — and be a friend — is the first step to bearing witness to friendship in all its forms and, hopefully, feeling less alone.
Gyan Yankovich is the author of Just Friends, published by Ultimo Press, out 31st January 2024.

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